Food With (Not So Much) Integrity

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Last month marked the eighth time since 1997 that farm owners in Florida stood accused by the Department of Justice for using forced-labor to harvest produce. The case involves dozens of Haitians who were recruited as laborers—to work legally in the country on “guestworker” visas—who were then, with their passports confiscated, forced to work long hours and under harsh conditions for little to no pay. Threatened with deportation and, in some cases, physically and sexually assaulted, the workers picked tomatoes, oranges and other fruits and vegetables for sale around the country.

Chipotle refuses to work with CIW and other organizations that promote the rights of farmworkers. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

As a recent piece on Huffington Post points out, some of these fruits and vegetables possibly found their way onto the menu at Chipotle, a quickly growing and popular fast-food restaurant whose mission, according to its website, is “Food With Integrity.”

Unfortunately, Chipotle is not in a position to claim ignorance of the inhumane working conditions under which the produce it serves might have been harvested. For the past four years, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)—a Florida-based organization fighting for better conditions for farm laborers—has been building partnerships with major fast food establishments and grocery stores, such as McDonalds and Whole Foods. CIW asks these large corporations to use their purchasing power to incentivize fair treatment of farm laborers by only purchasing produce from suppliers that can prove they treat their laborers fairly. Chipotle has been approached by CIW numerous times with invitations to join the growing list of large corporations taking a stand against unfair treatment of farm workers. And Chipotle has turned down every one.

At first glance, the popular fast-food chain would seem like an obvious partner for CIW.  It had a tie-in with the 2009 release of the film, Food INC, sponsoring free screenings of the film and distributing promotional material at all of its restaurant locations. Chipotle’s CEO, Steve Ells will be starring in the upcoming NBC reality series America’s Next Great Restaurant and has received significant press surrounding his supposed goal to provide good fast food to American consumers with “integrity of ingredients.” The restaurant’s website prominently features descriptions of the “naturally raised animals” that provide the meat for its menu. The meat Chipotle serves is from animals that are “raised in a humane way, fed a vegetarian diet, never given hormones and allowed to display their natural tendencies.”

But Chipotle refuses to work with CIW and other organizations that promote the rights of farmworkers. For four years, the company has declined invitations to join the other large corporations working with CIW to promote fair labor practices on America’s farms.

While Chipotle refuses to throw its financial weight towards the improvement of working conditions for farm laborers, CIW is providing plenty of opportunities for consumers take action. Check out their website to find out how to send a postcard to the corporate headquarters of Chipotle and other corporations that refuse to take a stand and to learn more about the organizations that deserve your patronage—as well as the ones that don’t.

To read more about workers in the food industry as well as the work of the CIW, see: Fighting for Farmworkers’ Rights for More than 40 Years, In a Global Food System: Breaking Down Barriers and Improving Livelihoods for Food Workers, and Making Sure the Food Industry Works for its Employees and Modern Slavery Museum: Coming to a Street or City Near You.

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